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Blackhawks win emphasizing speed, skill over size

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Size is a nice characteristic to have in hockey, but the Chicago Blackhawks have proven it's not everything.

The Blackhawks have emphasized speed and skill over size, and they've been successful, winning two of the past five Stanley Cup championships (2010 and 2013).

Chicago is preparing for its fifth Western Conference Final in the past seven seasons and is considered by some as the favorite to defeat the bigger Anaheim Ducks; Game 1 is Sunday at Honda Center (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). That probably wouldn't have happened a decade ago, when giant men on skates clogged the ice surface, but the NHL and game have changed.

Being small isn't a detriment anymore for guys with great hands and the ability to skate fast.

"I would say if it was like the early 2000s or late '90s, it seemed like it was a bigger man's game and it would be tough for guys [my] size to end up even making the NHL," said 5-foot-11, 177-pound right wing Patrick Kane, who leads the Blackhawks with 13 points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "I think with the rule changes and the way the game's changed, as far as what you can do defensively, small guys are able to get away with a little more and are able to be a little bit more productive."

Chicago is the best example of this shift in the NHL, but other teams are starting to follow in its footsteps. The Blackhawks, however, are doubling down on their outlook about size. They've selected a number of smaller forwards the past few years in the NHL Draft and recently signed 5-foot-11, 170-pound Russian forward Artemi Panarin, whose 62 points in 54 games were fourth in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Panarin has been dubbed "Russian Kane" by fans, and the Blackhawks also have rookie Teuvo Teravainen, the 5-foot-11, 178-pound forward who came to North America last season being called "Finnish Kane."

Teravainen is fitting in nicely on the Blackhawks' third line playing with two-way center Antoine Vermette and left wing Patrick Sharp. Panarin hopes to earn an NHL roster spot next season, and his relatively small size won't be an issue judging by Chicago's current roster.

The Blackhawks come into the best-of-7 series against the Ducks averaging 6-foot, 197 pounds per player, which is considerably smaller than Anaheim's averages of 6-foot-1, 208. Not counting its three goalies, Chicago has eight players who weigh 200 pounds or more. Outside of their three goalies, the Ducks have 17 players weighing at least 200 pounds.

"I think it's good for the game," said Kane, who's second to Anaheim's Corey Perry (6-foot-3, 213) in the postseason scoring race. "There's still, obviously, a lot of dominant players that are big and strong, like [Perry and Ryan Getzlaf], but when you're on the ice, especially for me, I don't really tend to think about my size or if I'm bigger or smaller than a guy when you're going up against him. You just try to do what you can as far as [making plays]."

Chicago's diminutive size isn't limited to its skill players.

Gritty forward Andrew Shaw, who plays right wing on the fourth line, is listed at 5-foot-10, 179 pounds and isn't afraid to mix it up along the boards or in front of the net. Veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen, acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline, is 5-foot-10, 194 pounds, and forward Kris Versteeg is 5-foot-11, 176 pounds.

Versteeg will likely be a healthy scratch to start the series but had a regular lineup spot in the regular season when not injured. At his best, Versteeg's speed and skill combination were tough to stop when paired with Kane and center Brad Richards on the second line.

The way Teravainen sees it, the secret to success for small forwards boils down to a couple key traits.

"It's all about speed," Teravainen said. "Usually, little guys are maybe faster. You have to go as hard as you can into the battles and things like that, but sometimes you have to be smart and play with your stick and just have a good strong stick and play with that."

Kane said that won't change against the Ducks simply because they're bigger.

"They're bigger, faster … a strong team," Kane said. "I don't think you go into a game, especially when you've had success in the League, thinking about changing it up any certain way. Obviously, you've got to be aware of certain things when you're playing a new team and what they can present, but if I go in and try to change my game completely against a bigger team, it's just going to end up not working out as well for me."

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